Adventures of Gilla na Chreck an Gour

by Patrick Kennedy


From “Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts.”

(Told in the Wexford Peasant Dialect.)

Long ago a poor widow woman lived down by the iron forge near Enniscorthy, and she was so poor, she had no clothes to put on her son; so she used to fix him in the ash-hole, near the fire, and pile the warm ashes about him; and, accordingly, as he grew up, she sunk the pit deeper. At last, by hook or by crook, she got a goat-skin and fastened it round his waist, and he felt quite grand, and took a walk down the street. So, says she to him next morning, “Tom, you thief, you never done any good yet, and you six-foot high, and past nineteen; take that rope and bring me a bresna from the wood.” “Never say’t twice, mother,” says Tom; “here goes.”

When he had it gathered and tied, what should come up but a big joiant, nine-foot high, and made a lick of a club at him. Well become Tom, he jumped a-one side and picked up a ram-pike; and the first crack he gave the big fellow he made him kiss the clod. “If you have e’er a prayer,” says Tom, “now’s the time to say it, before I make brishe of you.” “I have no prayers,” says the giant, “but if you spare my life I’ll give you that club; and as long as you keep from sin you’ll win every battle you ever fight with it.”

Tom made no bones about letting him off; and as soon as he got the club in his hands he sat down on the bresna and gave it a tap with the kippeen, and says, “Bresna, I had a great trouble gathering you, and run the risk of my life for you; the least you can do is to carry me home.” And, sure enough, the wind of the word was all it wanted. It went off through the wood, groaning and cracking till it came to the widow’s door.

Well, when the sticks were all burned Tom was sent off again to pick more; and this time he had to fight with a giant with two heads on him. Tom had a little more trouble with him—that’s all; and the prayers he said was to give Tom a fife that nobody could help dancing to when he was playing it. Begonies, he made the big faggot dance home, with himself sitting on it. Well, if you were to count all the steps from this to Dublin, dickens a bit you’d ever arrive there. The next giant was a beautiful boy with three heads on him. He had neither prayers nor catechism no more nor the others; and so he gave Tom a bottle of green ointment that wouldn’t let you be burned, nor scalded, nor wounded. “And now,” says he, “there’s no more of us. You may come and gather sticks here till little Lunacy Day in harvest without giant or fairy man to disturb you.”

Well, now, Tom was prouder nor ten paycocks, and used to take a walk down the street in the heel of the evening; but some of the little boys had no more manners nor if they were Dublin jackeens, and put out their tongues at Tom’s club and Tom’s goat-skin. He didn’t like that at all, and it would be mean to give one of them a clout. At last, what should come through the town but a kind of bellman, only it’s a big bugle  he had, and a huntsman’s cap on his head, and a kind of painted shirt. So this—he wasn’t a bellman, and I don’t know what to call him—bugleman, maybe—proclaimed that the King of Dublin’s daughter was so melancholy that she didn’t give a laugh for seven years, and that her father would grant her in marriage to whoever would make her laugh three times. “That’s the very thing for me to try,” says Tom; and so, without burning any more daylight, he kissed his mother, curled his club at the little boys, and set off along the yalla highroad to the town of Dublin.

At last Tom came to one of the City gates and the guards laughed and cursed at him instead of letting him through. Tom stood it all for a little time, but at last one of them—out of fun, as he said—drove his bagnet half an inch or so into his side. Tom did nothing but take the fellow by the scruff of his neck and the waistband of his corduroys and fling him into the canal. Some ran to pull the fellow out, and others to let manners into the vulgarian with their swords and daggers; but a tap from his club sent them headlong into the moat or down on the stones, and they were soon begging him to stay his hands.

So at last one of them was glad enough to show Tom the way to the Palace yard; and there was the King and the Queen, and the princess in a gallery, looking at all sorts of wrestling and sword-playing, and rinka-fadhas (long dances) and mumming, all to please the princess; but not a smile came over her handsome face.

Well, they all stopped when they seen the young giant, with his boy’s face and long, black hair, and his short, curly beard—for his poor mother couldn’t afford  to buy razhurs—and his great, strong arms and bare legs, and no covering but the goat-skin that reached from his waist to his knees. But an envious, wizened basthard of a fellow, with a red head, that wished to be married to the princess, and didn’t like how she opened her eyes at Tom, came forward, and asked his business very snappishly. “My business,” says Tom, says he, “is to make the beautiful princess, God bless her, laugh three times.” “Do you see all them merry fellows and skilful swordsmen,” says the other, “that could eat you up without a grain of salt, and not a mother’s soul of ‘em ever got a laugh from her these seven years?” So the fellows gathered round Tom, and the bad man aggravated him till he told them he didn’t care a pinch of snuff for the whole bilin’ of ‘em; let ‘em come on, six at a time, and try what they could do. The King, that was too far off to hear what they were saying, asked what did the stranger want. “He wants,” says the red-headed fellow, “to make hares of your best men.” “Oh!” says the King, “if that’s the way, let one of ‘em turn out and try his mettle.” So one stood forward, with sword and pot-lid, and made a cut at Tom. He struck the fellow’s elbow with the club, and up over their heads flew the sword, and down went the owner of it on the gravel from a thump he got on the helmet. Another took his place, and another and another, and then half-a-dozen at once, and Tom sent swords, helmets, shields, and bodies rolling over and over, and themselves bawling out that they were kilt, and disabled, and damaged, and rubbing their poor elbows and hips, and limping away. Tom contrived not to kill anyone; and the princess was so amused that she let a great, sweet laugh out of her that was heard all over the yard. “King of  Dublin,” says Tom, “I’ve the quarter of your daughter.” And the King didn’t know whether he was glad or sorry, and all the blood in the princess’s heart run into her cheeks.

So there was no more fighting that day, and Tom was invited to dine with the royal family. Next day Redhead told Tom of a wolf, the size of a yearling heifer, that used to be serenading (sauntering) about the walls, and eating people and cattle; and said what a pleasure it would give the King to have it killed. “With all my heart,” says Tom. “Send a jackeen to show me where he lives, and we’ll see how he behaves to a stranger.”

The princess was not well pleased, for Tom looked a different person with fine clothes and a nice green birredh over his long, curly hair; and besides, he’d got one laugh out of her. However, the King gave his consent, and in an hour and a half the horrible wolf was walking in the palace yard, and Tom a step or two behind, with his club on his shoulder, just as a shepherd would be walking after a pet lamb. The King and Queen and princess were safe up in their gallery, but the officers and people of the court that were padrowling about the great bawn, when they saw the big baste coming in gave themselves up, and began to make for doors and gates; and the wolf licked his chops, as if he was saying, “Wouldn’t I enjoy a breakfast off a couple of yez!” The King shouted out, “O Gilla na Chreck an Gour, take away that terrible wolf and you must have all my daughter.” But Tom didn’t mind him a bit. He pulled out his flute and began to play like vengeance; and dickens a man or boy in the yard but began shovelling away heel and toe, and the  wolf himself was obliged to get on his hind legs and dance Tatther Jack Walsh along with the rest. A good deal of the people got inside and shut the doors, the way the hairy fellow wouldn’t pin them; but Tom kept playing, and the outsiders kept shouting and dancing, and the wolf kept dancing and roaring with the pain his legs were giving him; and all the time he had his eyes on Redhead, who was shut out along with the rest. Wherever Redhead went the wolf followed, and kept one eye on him and the other on Tom, to see if he would give him leave to eat him. But Tom shook his head, and never stopped the tune, and Redhead never stopped dancing and bawling and the wolf dancing and roaring, one leg up and the other down, and he ready to drop out of his standing from fair tiresomeness.

When the princess seen that there was no fear of anyone being kilt, she was so divarted by the stew that Redhead was in that she gave another great laugh; and well become Tom, out he cried, “King of Dublin, I have two quarters of your daughter.” “Oh, quarters or alls,” says the King, “put away that divel of a wolf and we’ll see about it.” So Gilla put his flute in his pocket, and, says he, to the baste that was sittin’ on his currabingo ready to faint, “Walk off to your mountains, my fine fellow, and live like a respectable baste; and if ever I find you come within seven miles of any town—.” He said no more, but spit in his fist, and gave a flourish of his club. It was all the poor divel wanted: he put his tail between his legs and took to his pumps without looking at man or mortial, and neither sun, moon, nor stars ever saw him in sight of Dublin again.

At dinner everyone laughed except the foxy fellow; and, sure enough, he was laying out how he’d settle  poor Tom next day. “Well, to be sure!” says he, “King of Dublin, you are in luck. There’s the Danes moidhering us to no end. D—— run to Lusk wid ‘em and if anyone can save us from ‘em it is this gentleman with the goat-skin. There is a flail hangin’ on the collar-beam in Hell, and neither Dane nor Devil can stand before it.” “So,” says Tom to the King, “will you let me have the other half of the princess if I bring you the flail?” “No, no,” says the princess, “I’d rather never be your wife than see you in that danger.”

But Redhead whispered and nudged Tom about how shabby it would look to reneague the adventure. So he asked him which way he was to go, and Redhead directed him through a street where a great many bad women lived, and a great many shibbeen houses were open, and away he set.

Well, he travelled and travelled till he came in sight of the walls of Hell; and, bedad, before he knocked at the gates, he rubbed himself over with the greenish ointment. When he knocked, a hundred little imps popped their heads out through the bars, and axed him what he wanted. “I want to speak to the big divel of all,” says Tom; “open the gate.”

It wasn’t long till the gate was thrune open, and the Ould Boy received Tom with bows and scrapes, and axed his business. “My business isn’t much,” says Tom. “I only came for the loan of that flail that I see hanging on the collar-beam for the King of Dublin to give a thrashing to the Danes.” “Well,” says the other, “the Danes is much better customers to me; but, since you walked so far, I won’t refuse. Hand that flail,” says he to a young imp; and he winked the far-off eye at the same time. So, while some were  barring the gates, the young devil climbed up and took down the iron flail that had the handstaff and booltheen both made out of red-hot iron. The little vagabond was grinning to think how it would burn the hands off of Tom, but the dickens a burn it made on him, no more nor if it was a good oak sapling. “Thankee,” says Tom; “now, would you open the gate for a body and I’ll give you no more trouble.” “Oh, tramp!” says Ould Nick, “is that the way? It is easier getting inside them gates than getting out again. Take that tool from him, and give him a dose of the oil of stirrup.” So one fellow put out his claws to seize on the flail, but Tom gave him such a welt of it on the side of his head that he broke off one of his horns, and made him roar like a divil as he was. Well, they rushed at Tom, but he gave them, little and big, such a thrashing as they didn’t forget for a while. At last says the ould thief of all, rubbing his elbows, “Let the fool out; and woe to whoever lets him in again, great or small.”

So out marched Tom and away with him without minding the shouting and cursing they kept up at him from the tops of the walls. And when he got home to the big bawn of the palace, there never was such running and racing as to see himself and the flail. When he had his story told, he laid down the flail on the stone steps, and bid no one for their lives to touch it. If the King and Queen and princess made much of him before they made ten times as much of him now; but Redhead, the mean scruff-hound, stole over, and thought to catch hold of the flail to make an end of him. His fingers hardly touched it, when he let a roar out of him as if heaven and earth were coming together, and kept flinging his arms about and dancing that it was pitiful  to look at him. Tom run at him as soon as he could rise, caught his hands in his own two, and rubbed them this way and that, and the burning pain left them before you could reckon one. Well, the poor fellow, between the pain that was only just gone, and the comfort he was in, had the comicalest face that ever you see; it was such a mixerumgatherum of laughing and crying. Everyone burst out a-laughing—the princess could not stop no more than the rest—and then says Gilla, or Tom, “Now, ma’am, if there were fifty halves of you I hope you will give me them all.” Well, the princess had no mock modesty about her. She looked at her father, and, by my word, she came over to Gilla, and put her two delicate hands into his two rough ones, and I wish it was myself was in his shoes that day!

Tom would not bring the flail into the palace. You may be sure no other body went near it; and when the early risers were passing next morning they found two long clefts in the stone where it was, after burning itself an opening downwards, nobody could tell how far.

But a messenger came in at noon and said that the Danes were so frightened when they heard of the flail coming into Dublin that they got into their ships and sailed away.

Well, I suppose before they were married Gilla got some man like Pat Mara of Tomenine to larn him the “principles of politeness,” fluxions, gunnery, and fortifications, decimal fractions, practice, and the rule-of-three direct, the way he’d be able to keep up a conversation with the royal family. Whether he ever lost his time larning them sciences, I’m not sure, but it’s as sure as fate that his mother never more saw any want till the end of her days.